COVERAGE of foreclosure tensions at two farming properties in Western Australia’s southern wheatbelt on 60 Minutes has come under fire on social media.
Last night’s broadcast of “Farmers Fight Back” highlighted events during Bruce Dixon's farm foreclosure at Cuballing in WA last month and that of Rodney Culleton, Williams.
It focused on ongoing criticism of changed loan conditions stemming from the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ) takeover of the former Landmark rural loans book.
“There’s a bushfire raging across rural Australia; a firestorm of anger and resentment that’s erupted into open warfare,” 60 Minutes reporter Michael Usher said.
“Thousands of debt-stricken farmers forced off their land by the big banks are now fighting back.
“But they’re alone in battling this national crisis because federal and State governments have completely ignored them, so the farmers are taking matters into their own hands.
“Some refusing to leave; others even forcing their way back onto their properties.
“And once the banks move on it pits farmer against farmer and it’s getting ugly,” he said.
“If these bank tactics and scenes were playing out in the home mortgage belt and not the wheatbelt, there’d be national outcry.”
Last month police were called to intervene after two receivers had their car impounded by large hay bales by members of the Rural Action Movement group at Mr Dixon’s grain and sheep farm.
The 60 Minutes story said Mr Culleton and his family had lived on the wheat farm for 20 years, but at no stage chose to be ANZ customers when the bank took over from Landmark and introduced tougher lending terms.
The farm was valued at an estimated $10 million but was broken up and sold for $1.6 million.
The program showed edited coverage of an incident on Mr Culleton’s foreclosed farm in which brothers Jesse and Matt Ford arrived, having bought part of the property.
However, Mr Culleton, surrounded by family and supporters, told the brothers he would be staying there that night, with police then called to the scene to try and intervene.
The Ford brothers defended themselves, saying the property was advertised in Farm Weekly and they were looking for more land, so purchased it at sale.
“We’ve got nothing against you guys,” one brother said to the Culletons during the altercation.
Mr Dixon said his original loan was $3.3m but changed conditions after the Landmark takeover meant he was forced to repay an additional $250,000 per year to ANZ, in interest and principal.
Social media storm
After the program’s broadcast a robust exchange unfolded on Twitter, with many contributors sympathising with the bank rather than the farmers.
WA farmer and farm consultant Bill Crabtree said: “Locals see the story more objectively than how @60Mins cared to share it - they know more of the facts.”
Twitter user Chayce Creedy said: “Not the whole story being told here”.
“The story is the lenders allowing farmers into that much debt. I would like to know more of the change from Landmark to ANZ, that's the story,” he tweeted.
Mr Creedy said he also felt the Ford brothers were “unfairly targeted”.
“Such reporting leads to (an) emotional response with little clarity or understanding of (the) problem for those not involved,” he said.
Philip Treloar said if the banks didn’t lend money to farmers to buy seed or feed and the drought broke, “would they be to blame?”
Federal independent MP Bob Katter was quoted in the program saying the banks’ tactics in “every single case” he’d investigated deeper, had involved “inducement and duress”.
He said ANZ was “easily the worst” he’d encountered, but other banks had been guilty of similar conduct.
ANZ issued a statement after the broadcast saying they are limited in what they can comment on about individual customers but “we can confirm we have been supporting both the Dixon and Culleton families for many years”.
“We have actively tried to engage with the Dixons on a number of occasions through mediation, and reached a mutually-agreed outcome in 2014 that the Dixons unfortunately later defaulted on,” the statement said.
“Mr Culleton’s claims aired on 60 Minutes have been tested in court many times, including the Supreme Court of WA, and in each case the matter has been found in ANZ’s favour.
“Taking possession of a farm is always the last option after all other avenues, including farm debt mediation, have been exhausted, and we work with farming customers over several years to try and resolve their financial situation.”
RSM Bird Cameron responded to Fairfax Media’s reporting of the stand-off with RAM members on Mr Dixon's farm, saying its representatives were “at all times professional”.
A statement said they were appointed as agent for the mortgagee in possession, but for such an appointment no court order or warrant is required for RSM Bird Cameron to visit the property.
Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said he didn’t see the 60 Minutes broadcast but had heard about it.
He said his office had already contacted the ANZ seeking further information about the circumstances underpinning the two farm foreclosures, to ensure “people are treated fairly”.
“We’ll be following up further with this issue just to make sure we’re not making any (false) statements about where the truth lies,” he said.
“Some of these issues that they bring up to us we look at the facts and we find out that what has been told to us is not actually correct.
“So on these circumstances that we go through we ring up the bank and make our own enquiries to try and make sure that these people are treated fairly.
“In those two instances brought to our attention by 60 Minutes last night we’ve been onto it this morning.
“As soon as we found out about the story, my office was onto it immediately.”
Mr Joyce said the government was also ensuring it was continuing to fund the Rural Financial Counselling Service.
He said the ANZ had already stated it had put an embargo on farm foreclosures, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia said they had no intention of making any foreclosures and other banks said they’d “ride with people by reasons of them having hard times because of the drought”.
Fairfax Media understands Mr Katter plans to ask federal Treasurer Joe Hockey a question about forcing banks and lending authorities to fully disclose the wording of confidentiality clauses in documents pertaining to foreclosure proceedings, when parliament next sits.
Full ANZ media release:
• While we are limited in what we can say about individual customers, we can confirm we have been supporting both the Dixon and Culleton families for many years.
• We have actively tried to engage with the Dixons on a number of occasions through mediation, and reached a mutually -agreed outcome in 2014 that the Dixons unfortunately later defaulted on.
• Mr Culleton’s claims aired on 60 Minutes have been tested in court many times, including the Supreme Court of WA, and in each case the matter has been found in ANZ’s favour.
• Taking possession of a farm is always the last option after all other avenues, including farm debt mediation, have been exhausted and we work with farming customers over several years to try and resolve their financial situation.
• ANZ has more than 20,000 farming customers throughout the country and we’re committed to supporting the sector through both the good and tough times.
• While only around 0.2 per cent of our customers are in severe financial distress and the subject of enforcement action, we will continue to work patiently with every customer in financial difficulty on a case by case basis to help either get them back on their feet or protect their equity.
• A moratorium was announced to address a once-in-a-generation drought impacting Queensland and Northern NSW. We recognise there are farmers doing it tough in other parts of Australia and we will do all we can to work with them to get them back on their feet.
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